Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Looking Over the President's Shoulder
Black Theatre Troupe
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Jason Alexander with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra


Walter Belcher
Photo by Laura Durant
The Oscar nominated hit film The Butler was based on the true story of African American Eugene Allen, who served as a waiter and a butler in the White House and worked there for over 30 years, retiring in 1986. However, before Allen's tenure, another black man, Alonzo Fields, who was the grandson of a freed slave, worked at the White House for 21 years and was the first black man to be promoted to Head Butler and was actually the man who hired Allen. The one man play Looking Over the President's Shoulder is told from Fields' perspective of serving under four presidents through some of the more trying times in American history: Pearl Harbor, the rise of Hitler, and the Korean War. Black Theatre Troupe presents a smartly directed and well-acted production of James Still's play. It's just too bad that the play, while moving and poignant at times and offering an interesting look at America's complicated history of racism and classism at that time, is stuffed with too many small facts and not enough emphasis on the serious historical moments of the time and also is somewhat vague about Fields' family.

Alonzo Fields didn't set out to work at the White House; he wanted to be an opera singer. But a chance meeting, and knowing he needed a good job to care for his wife and daughter, set his life in a new direction with the offer of a job at the White House. Thinking he'd only work in Washington for the winter, he ended up serving for four presidents and being a fly on the wall during many of the key decisions in American history.

Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were the four U.S. presidents that Fields worked for during his 21 years, and Still treats them all fairly, providing new insights into these famous men. He also highlights many of the personal moments that Fields had with the Presidents, especially the close relationship he had with Truman and some fun encounters with other famous people of the period who visited the White House, such as Winston Churchill and Errol Flynn. The play also touches on the racial divide in America at that time and how the different social styles of the presidents and their families changed not only how dinners and parties were held but also how differently the staff was treated by them.

It is an interesting play full of facts and remembrances. However, while we understand how Fields' position demanded that he give up so much of his own personal life, it's still unclear what happened to Fields' wife and daughter during his over 20 year tenure. And, with several mentions of his wife being in the hospital in Boston during his White Hours years, the fact that no comment is made at the end about his wife leaves a feeling of unfinished business. Also, Fields comes across mainly as an emotionless observer. That is the role he was forced to play at the White House, but it means we never really get a full understanding of the man. Some clarity around his personal status would make the play even more personal and poignant, especially knowing how much he gave up to serve at the White House. But those issues are all faults of the play and not the Black Theatre Troupe production.

Director Pasha Yamotahari keeps the two-hour play moving briskly. He uses Thom Gilseth's smart but simply designed set wisely, with four playing areas to convey the rooms of the White House. He adds plenty of movement to not let the play get bogged down. There are a lot of facts and plenty of details about the White House, the presidents, and world events that Fields mentions in the play, so the fact that it never feels overly long is a testament to Yamotahari's ability to keep things moving and focused. He also gets an impressive performance from Walter Belcher as Fields. Belcher is powerful and forthright in his portrayal, yet also emotional, moving, and touching when needed. It is a well-rounded performance full of nuance, providing Belcher the chance to play many of the world figures whom Fields came into contact with, which he does with ease.

While Gilseth's set and Mario Garcia's costumes are bright and direct, Cody Soper's lighting is full of shadows and tone. This works well to pinpoint the more stirring movements of the piece. However, with Belcher constantly in motion, there are several areas of the stage devoid of light which detracts a little from a few important moments where we can't clearly make out his facial expressions. Sound designer Cliff Williams includes some historical radio broadcasts and period sound effects to effectively take us back in time and Gilseth's use of just one chair to represent the four presidents that Belcher as Fields often speaks to is an exceptional move in how it makes you realize that whoever sits in this one chair is the Commander in Chief.

Looking Over the President's Shoulder offers a unique perspective from a man who was in the room where many world events happened and where famous guests attended. While the play could be a little clearer, it still offers us the chance and the ability, as Fields states in the play, to be "in the front row and watching the passing parade of history."

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Looking Over the President's Shoulder runs through February 21, 2016, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at www.blacktheatretroupe.org or by calling 602 258-8129

Written by James Still

Director: Pasha Yamotahari
Scenic Design: Thom Gilseth
Lighting Design: Cody Soper
Costume Design: Mario Garcia
Sound Design: Cliff Williams
Stage Manager: Jasmine Lester
Properties: Randy Beal
Cast:
Alonzo Fields: Walter Belcher


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